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If you like Joyce Carol Oates's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Rita Dove,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
Khaled Hosseini,
Norman Mailer,
Frank McCourt,
W.S. Merwin,
James Michener,
Carol Shields,
John Updike
and Gore Vidal

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Joyce Carol Oates in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Novel

Joyce Carol Oates's recommended reading: Walden and Civil Disobedience

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Joyce Carol Oates
 
Joyce Carol Oates
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Joyce Carol Oates Interview (page: 2 / 6)

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  Joyce Carol Oates

Was there a teacher that inspired you greatly?

Joyce Carol Oates Interview Photo
Joyce Carol Oates: I've had a number of teachers including my first teacher who was, I think, a somewhat heroic and Amazonian woman, who ran a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York, north of Buffalo, right in the snow belt. And in those days a one-room schoolhouse was manned by one person who was a woman. And she took care of the wood-burning stove, as well as eight grades of students, in some cases unruly students, farm boys and so forth. She was a heroic figure. She was quite large, and I remember her very, very clearly because she was my first teacher. I think she was kind to me. I was obviously one of the good girls. I wasn't one of the bad boys. So I was probably one of her favorites.

So I excelled in school. I thrived, like a plant that could only be nurtured in a very small area but would have been destroyed outside this sheltered area.

You mentioned your father being Thoreau-like. What about your parents? Was there a particular way that they encouraged you?


Joyce Carol Oates: My parents inspired me by their example. They both grew up in the Depression, and both of them had to quit school when they were quite young to work, because there actually was no choice. So, though they're intelligent people -- and my father in particularly is interested in books and has subsequently, since his retirement, attended classes at the University of Buffalo -- nonetheless, they didn't have any opportunity to be educated. So they've always impressed me with their resilience, their good spirits, their courage. It wasn't an easy life, and I won't go into details, but there were a lot of problems. And yet they were never defeated.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


Somebody else might have been defeated. Someone else might have been really depressed, or become an alcoholic or something, because there were personal problems and economic crises. But I just remember them carrying on and just doing their lives. They really made a strong impression on me.

You had this creative disposition, yet your parents had to deal with pragmatic survival issues. Were you more or less a free creative spirit in the home? Was there any kind of value clash?

Joyce Carol Oates: I was always interested in writing and reading, but I had many chores to do.


I did a lot of work around the house and around the farm. I remember cutting the lawn -- not with a power mower, but with a hand mower -- when I was fairly young. So, it wasn't that I was a free spirit. I was not a free spirit. I fit in with the household in the way that people do in farm communities. Everybody's working, basically. But I think I had my own private imagination as we all do. And I just found a way to have a private space in my own imagination somehow.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Did you feel that you were different from the other kids?

Joyce Carol Oates: It's hard to say how we compare to other people. We each inhabit our own personalities. I have often felt that I'm a very neutral being and that I have almost no personality.


I'm drawn to writing partly because I'm fascinated by the mimetic process. That is, to describe a scene that moves me emotionally, to render it into language so that it may evoke the same emotion in a reader. I find that I'm in love with the external world, and writing is a way of conveying that.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


Joyce Carol Oates Interview Photo
But as far as my own personality's concerned, it's as if I'm a neutral or transparent medium. One thing comes, by way of the medium, into being a book or some writing. I don't know whether I was different from other people. Perhaps I am. Perhaps no one has a personality, and people are inventing themselves in the context in which they find themselves.

Did you have any major setbacks while you were creating yourself as a writer?

Joyce Carol Oates: Major setbacks? I have minor setbacks probably every day of my life. I have a friend in Princeton, who's a writer named John McPhee. He says every writer has a mini-nervous breakdown some time in the mid-morning but keeps going. I guess that's about it. Each day is like an enormous rock that I'm trying to push up this hill. I get it up a fair distance, it rolls back a little bit, and I keep pushing it, hoping I'll get it to the top of the hill and that it will go on its own momentum.


I'm very deeply inculcated with a sense of failure for some reason. And I'm drawn to failure. I often write about it, and I'm sympathetic with it I think, because I feel I'm contending with it constantly in my own life. A sense that there is a movement toward light or illumination which requires strength and ingenuity. But then there's another contrary force that pulls us back into defeat and a sense of giving up. I feel, probably, that I'm in the throes of that contest every day of my life, virtually.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


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This page last revised on May 16, 2012 20:53 EDT